The thought of man shall confess to Thee (VII:3)

27 Jan. 28 May. 27 Sept.
Let him consider that he is always beheld from heaven by God, and that his actions are everywhere seen by the eye of the Divine Majesty, and are every hour reported to Him by His angels. This the prophet telleth us, when he sheweth how God is ever present in our thoughts, saying: “God searcheth the heart and the reins” (Psalm 7:10). And again “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men” (Psalm 93:11). And he also saith: “Thou hast understood my thoughts afar off” (Psalm 138:3); and “The thought of man shall confess to Thee” (Psalm 75:11). In order, therefore, that he may be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother say ever in his heart: “Then shall I be unspotted before Him, if I shall have kept me from mine iniquity” (Psalm 17:24).

The first thing that strikes me in reading this portion of Chapter VII is that in five sentences Saint Benedict quotes the Psalms five times. What does this tell us? It tells us first of all that the Psalter was Saint Benedict’s daily bread, and that by chanting the Psalms eight times each day, and all 150 psalms each week, and this over a lifetime, the Psalms became, in some way, the native idiom of his soul. The Psalter functions as a kind of sacrament: it gives a monk the very prayer of Christ. The psalms are the prayer of Christ on a monk’s lips and in his heart. William of Malmsbury (1095–1143), in relating the monastic piety of Saint Wulfstan of Worcester (c. 1008–1095), summed it up in this aphorism: Semper in ore psalmus, semper in corde Christus. “A psalm always in the mouth is Christ always in the heart.”

The Psalter does not reveal its secrets all at once. Psalmody, the principal form of monastic prayer, is real work. It requires an investment of time and the exercise of patience. Do not imagine that one can go to Matins, open the book, and straightaway see sparks flying off every page to enkindle the fire of prayer in the heart. Saint Benedict will say in Chapter XIX, Psallite sapienter, that is, “Sing ye wisely,” or even, “Savour what you sing.” First of all, there is the work of learning the Latin text. Saint Benedict recognises the need to give time to this because in Chapter VIII he will say, “Let the time that remains after the Night-Office be spent in study by those brethren who have still some part of the Psalter and lessons to learn.” There is one way to make the Psalter your own and it is by going through the Divine Office, psalm by psalm, verse by verse, and word by word. What words do I not recognise? What phrases are hard to grasp? Once one has become familiar with the text of the psalms, and learned their vocabulary, their structure, and their rhythm, one can begin to identify the voice of Christ in each psalm. One begins to say, “Here, in this psalm is the suffering Christ; in this other psalm, the glorious Christ, risen and ascended into heaven; and in still another psalm, Christ, the Father’s beloved Son; Christ the bridegroom of the Church; Christ the Head of His Mystical Body; Christ the King; and Christ the Eternal High Priest.

Hands down, the best English book for studying the Psalter is John Mason Neale’s stupendous three volume Commentary on the Psalms. There are, to be sure, other useful commentaries on the Psalter, but John Mason Neale’s Commentary brings together the substance of what the Fathers have said concerning each verse of every psalm. It also indicates where the psalm is used liturgically in both East and West.

There is also the technique of psalmody: attention, pitch, pronunciation, and rhythm. In Chapter 34 of The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Father Garrigou–Lagrange writes of what he calls “deformed psalmody” and contrasts it with what he calls “contemplative psalmody.” The difference between “deformed psalmody” and “contemplative psalmody” is not always apparent to beginners. There are, alas, religious, and even clergy of a certain traditionalist sensibility, who content themselves with a “deformed psalmody” because they have never known anything else. Such souls acquit themselves materially of their servitutis pensum (Chapter L), their bounden service, but their psalmody is not sapiential. It remains within the law, but is rendered in the same spirit that a man pays his taxes.

Deformed psalmody is a body without a soul. Generally, it is marked by unseemly haste, as if undue haste, which, according to St. Francis de Sales, is the death of devotion, could replace true and profound life. The words of the Office are badly pronounced without rhythm or measure . . . As a result of haste, the psalmody of which we are speaking is mechanical and not organic; just as in a body without a soul, the members are no longer vitally united, but only placed together. The Office becomes a series of words following one another. The great meaning of a psalm is no longer comprehended; to one who is trying to grasp this meaning and to follow it, this mechanical chant brings fatigue and is an obstacle to true prayer. Is this manner of chanting a lifting of the soul toward God? Perhaps, but it is a uniformly retarded elevation, like the movement of a stone that has been thrown into the air and tends to fall back; whereas true prayer ought, like a flame, to tend spontaneously toward heaven.

Then the great Dominican describes “contemplative psalmody.”

What should the contemplative chant be? This chant is distinguished precisely by the spirit of prayer, or at least by the aspiration which inclines us to it, which desires it, seeks it, and at length obtains it. We are thus shown how much the contemplation of the mysteries of faith is in the normal way of sanctity: this contemplation alone can give us in liturgical prayer the light, peace, and joy of the truth tasted and loved.

The spirit of prayer, more intimately drawn from mental prayer, is lost as soon as one hurries to finish daily prayer, as if it were not the very respiration of the soul, spiritual contact with God, our Life, It was in the spirit of prayer that the psalms were conceived; without it, we cannot understand them or live by them. “As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after Thee, O God.”

If the psalmody has this spirit, then in place of mechanical haste, which is a superficial life, we find profound life for which we do not need continually to recall liturgical rules, for these rules are merely the expression of its inner inclinations. . . . Such prayer is no longer mechanical, but organic; the soul has returned to vivify the body; prayer is no longer a succession of words; we are able to seize the vital spirit running through them. Without effort, even in the most painful hours of life, we can taste the admirable poetry of the psalms and find in them light, rest, strength, renewal of all energies. Then truly this prayer is a lifting up of the soul toward God, a lifting up that is not uniformly retarded, but rather accelerated.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with the First Degree of Humility. I shall not attempt to convince you by argument of what I am about to say. I shall instead leave it to each of you to discover for himself. The man who submits to the Psalter, who sacrifices his own paltry little prayers to the great filial and priestly prayer of Christ contained in the tabernacle of the Psalter, that man is making a profound act of humility the foundation of his monastic life. What is this act of humility? It is a fundamental submission to the weekly Psalter, measured out each day in eight Offices. It is a way of saying, “I know not how to pray as I ought, but the Holy Ghost comes to the aid of my weakness and gives me the psalms in their appointed order, so that I may lay aside all that I think I knew about prayer, and enter into the Psalter, and allow the Psalter to enter into me, bringing me the prayer of Christ, the prayer that I want to prefer to every other prayer, the prayer that reduces all my stammerings to silence, and allows me to say things that, apart from the Psalter, I would not dream of saying, nor dare say.”

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